Rum subs of the bootlegger era

Today we have narco subs (self-propelled semi-submersibles, or  SPSSs) to deal with but they are an idea that is almost a century old.

The Volstead Act in 1919 came at a time of technological innovation and, with a lot of Great War era soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines out of work, some quickly fell into the quick and easy field of bootlegging. While there were plenty of overland smugglers, rum row operations where speedboats (often powered by surplus Liberty aircraft engines) zipped up and down the coast, and some aerial smuggling, there also seems to be at least some evidence of submarine ops.

Some were apparently large scale as related in Smugglers, Bootleggers and Scofflaws: Prohibition and New York City by Ellen NicKenzie Lawson, which contains a 1924 aerial photo, purporting to show rum-smuggling submarines in the Hudson River near Croton Point.


The photo appears in the chapter “Rum Row”—the name of the smuggling area of the Atlantic coast from Nantucket to New York City and New Jersey. Lawson writes:

“News of a submarine being used on Rum Row appears to have some substance to it. One smuggler testified in court that he saw a submarine emerge on the Row with a German captain and a French crew. Newspapers in 1924 reported that submarines were smuggling liquor to New Jersey and Cape Cod. An aerial photo, taken by a commercial Manhattan map-making firm that same year, suggested submarines were thirty miles up the Hudson River near Croton Point. (German submarines were kept out of the river during World War I by a steel net strung low across the bottom of the Narrows.) The photo purported to document two submarines below the surface of the Hudson River, each 250 feet long [as big as a German Type U-93 class boat or a UE-II minelaying sub] and 600 feet apart. The aerial firm sent the photograph to the U.S. Navy, which had no submarines in the area, and the startling image was given to Coast Guard Intelligence and filed away.”

A firearms blog also contends that, “During prohibition a syndicate of bootleggers operating out of Puget Sound somehow managed to acquire a World War I German U-Boat.  They used the submarine to smuggle booze from Canada to Seattle.”

This is backed up by newspaper reports of the time (see The Evening Independent – Feb 16, 1922)


As Roy Olmstead, the “King of the Puget Sound Bootleggers,” was very well connected and financed, it may have been theoretically possible.

So there is that.

The only thing is that at this time the U.S. Navy (as well as those of France, Britain and Italy) were really stingy with selling surplus subs to the public with the exception of established ship breakers and other subs that may seem like there were floating around on the open market just weren’t.

Former Warship Wednesday alumni, the obsolete Lake-built submarine USS USS O-12 (SS-73) was stricken after being laid up during Prohibition and was soon leased for $1 per year (with a maximum of five years in options) to Lake’s company for use as a private research submarine– as far as I can tell the first time this occurred. But, as part of the lease agreement, she was disarmed and had to be either returned to the Navy or scuttled in at least 1,200 feet of water at the conclusion of her scientific use.

Further, in 1919 the Allied powers agreed that Germany’s immense U-boat fleet should be surrendered without the possibility of return and, while some boats were kept for research, the majority were dismantled and recycled or gesunken in deep water in the 20s. Of course, there is always the possibility that a scrapper may have resold a scratch and dent U-boat for the right price, but good luck keeping that quiet as subs of the era had to spend most of their time on the surface and most certainly would have been noticed by some busy body.

Then there is the crew, and a former bluejacket or unterseeboot driver who worked on such a project–providing he didn’t wind up in Davy Jones locker with said rum sub– would be sure to pass on the wild tale to their family post-Prohibition leading to the inevitable “my great uncle told me about his whisky U-boat” anecdotal recollection on a Ken Burns’ documentary.

Build your own

A 1926 newspaper article tells a similar tale of a towed submersible caught coming across the U.S./Canadian border via Lake Champlain.

“[S]ubmarine without motors, has been seized at Lake Champlain with 4800 bottles of ale. The seizure was made by the Royal Canadian Boundary Waters and Customs officials. It is pointed out that bootleggers have been using every known method of conveyance to run contraband liquor from Canada to the United States, including automobiles, motorboats, aeroplanes, and submarines. The latter have been known an mystery boats, having a length of 28ft., with a device for submerging and rising to the surface, but without any propelling mechanism, they being towed by the hawser 175ft. long. Air and vision are obtained by periscopes. The authorities say these vessels are extremely expensive, but they have successfully conveyed so much liquor that they have quickly paid for themselves.”

A history of the anti-smuggling patrol from U.S. Customs on the Lake, collected by the Vermont Historical Society, relates a similar tale, with a better take on a smaller unmanned semi-submersible:

While in the main channel of the lake a bit west of the Rutland Railroad fill, we saw an object which, from a  distance, looked like a  floating log. Whenever we found logs or other floating hazards to navigation, we dragged them ashore. As we approached the presumed log, to our surprise we saw instead a sort of barge anchored in such a way that the top of it lay awash. About 10 feet long, 6 feet wide and 4 feet deep, it had a hatch on the top which, when removed, disclosed a cargo of sacks of beer which weighted the barge sufficiently to keep it awash. Presumably towed by a small boat in stages over several nights,  we assumed that the smugglers would tow it as far as they dared during the night hours and would then anchor it in the hope that no one would discover it during the day. We towed the barge with its contents back to St. Albans Bay and again destroyed the alcoholic contents. The 1932 clippings from the St. Albans Messenger refer to a “submarine” bought at auction. Jack Kendrick later told me that this was the same barge which we had found floating in 1926.

Another Lake Champlain tale:

To disguise themselves on the water, some bootleggers tied a long rope to one end of the bags of alcohol and towed it behind them in a hollow log under water like a submarine. The disadvantage here, however, was that the log would immediately float to the surface and become visible if the boat were to be stopped by an officer. The method that worked best was to tie the bags of alcohol to one end of a rope and tie a box of rock salt to the other: if chased, the bootleggers could push the setup overboard, the bags and box would sink to the bottom, and later, as the rock salt dissolved, the box would float to the surface and act as a buoy-like marker for bootleggers to recover their lost cargo.

A look at an alleged effort on the Detroit River complete with oil drum diving helmets

Then, there is the small scale home-built river running submersible on public display at the Grand Gulf Military Park near Port Gibson, Mississippi.


Apparently the one-man submarine was powered by a Model T Ford Engine and used during the early Prohibition period to bootleg whiskey and rum from Davis Island to Vicksburg.

A turn of phrase

Another popular action of the period (and even today), moon-shining, saw the advent of “submarine stills” large black pot stills with a capacity of  up to 800-gallons of mash.

Submarine Japanese midget subs waiting for the 7th Fleet

Submarine stills…like Japanese midget subs waiting for the 7th Fleet

This led to the inevitable possibility of bootleggers passing off bottles of hootch that, when asked where they came from, would be told “From a submarine”….which may have made the legend of surplus U-boats full of whisky more popular than the reality.

Either way, it is a great story.


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About laststandonzombieisland

Let me introduce myself. I am a bit of a conflict junkie. I am fascinated by war and warfare, assassination, personal protection and weaponry ranging from spud guns and flame throwers to thermonuclear bombs and Soviet-trained Ebola monkeys. In short, if it’s violent or a tool to create violence it is kind of my thing. I have written a few thousand articles on the dry encyclopedia side for such websites as, University of Guns, Outdoor Hub, Tac-44, History Times, Big Game Hunter, Glock Forum, Firearms, and Combat Forums; as well as for print publications like England Expects, and Strike First Strike Fast. Several magazines such as Sea Classics, Military Historian and Collector, Mississippi Sportsman and Warship International have carried my pieces. Additionally I am on staff as a naval consultant and writer for Eye Spy Intelligence Magazine. Currently I am working on several book projects including an alternative history novel about the US-German War of 1916, and a biography of Southern gadfly and soldier of fortune Bennett Doty. My first novel, about the coming zombie apocalypse was released in 2012 by Necro Publications and can be found at as was the prequel, Chimera-44. I am currently working on book two of that series: "Pirates of the Zombie Coast." In my day job I am a contractor for the U.S. federal government in what could best be described as the ‘Force Protection’ field. In this I am an NRA-certified firearms, and less-than-lethal combat instructor.

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